A lot of people were disappointed by the filmed version of Lee Child’s Reacher novels, probably right down to the improbably-cast Tom Cruise. If I remember correctly, the premise was that Reacher on film needed to be a blockbuster that would open big world-wide, and for that, Cruise was the logical choice.
But what if one of Child’s books had been filmed as more of a chamber piece? What if it had been made by one of the whip-smart production companies now producing all those addictive series that we binge-watch on our computers? It could be dark and ominous. You wouldn’t need explosions and high-speed chases because you’d have shadows and dialogue like this:
“There’s no information they can’t get. They’re in this airline’s operating system, right now. They saw us buy the tickets, and they watched us board. Which means they’re in the 110th’s undercover locker, too… They’re watching everything we do. Every move we make. We’re in a goldfish bowl.”
That, of course, is Jack Reacher, late in Never Go Back, seated on a plane next to his current sidekick (and commanding officer) Major Susan Turner. And Lee Child, as he does so well, is exploiting the reader’s unease with contemporary America. Oooh. Turn the page! See what happens next! Feel that frisson of discomfort, delicious because we all know this is fiction!
Of course the real question about a book like this one, eagerly awaited by airport booksellers everywhere, is whether or not it’s good. And yes, it is. My acid test is whether a book makes me skip stops on the subway and Never Go Back almost won. (There was one unseemly scramble as the subway doors were about to close.) Child’s prose is incredibly absorbing. It even wins out over the strange double consciousness that always haunts me when I’m reading a commercial series: I know the author is trying to possess me in a way. I am willing to be possessed, although my awareness of the process may get in the way (and often does, to my chagrin). But Lee Child invariably takes charge.
There’s some dry humor here: “A visitor from outer space would assume the viability of the United States depended entirely on the ability of the citizenry to carry eight-by-four sheets of board, safely and in vast quantities.” That’ s Child on the predominance of trucks in the suburbs. And here’s a flashy dialogue sequence, after Reacher and Turner are comfortable together:
“He had a gun.” [Turner, about a bad guy]
“That would level the playing field a little.” [Reacher]
“It did, for about three-quarters of a second, and then he didn’t have a gun anymore, which meant I did, and … the guy was dead before he hit the ground.”
“And you need me now for what?”
“Are you telling me you don’t offer counseling?”
“Not a core strength.” [cue the laugh track: Reacher? Counseling?]
“Then how may I help you?”
“I need you to move the body. I can’t lift it.”
Haha, more laughs, because one thing Reacher can do is haul bodies around. Bad guys die, good guys are vindicated, all’s right with the world if you’re willing to overlook the oversupply of pickup trucks.